This week, Maine Democrats and Republicans are unveiling two separate but similar bills to address the universally condemned cultural practice of female genital mutilation.
The Democrats’ bill is backed by several district attorneys and members of the Somali and Sudanese communities. In contrast, the Republicans’ bill has been linked to what the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as the “largest anti-Muslim hate group in the United States,” with a chapter here in Maine.
It’s a practice that no one likes to think about, a practice in which female genitals are cut or removed for nonmedical reasons. According to the World Health Organization, more than 200 million girls and women have undergone the procedure in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, sometimes with lifelong complications.
Even though it’s been a federal crime for years, some Maine lawmakers want to ban it. They also want penalties to extend to parents who allow it.
“No child should ever be subjected to violence. When it comes to this horrific form of child abuse we must have a zero tolerance,” says Gov. Paul LePage, who is backing a bill sponsored by Rep. Heather Sirocki and other Republicans to criminalize female genital mutilation in Maine.
Republicans used Tuesday, Feb. 6, the United Nations’ International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, to roll out the bill at an afternoon news conference.
A similar measure failed to pass last year. At the time, the ACLU of Maine criticized it as “an attempt to single out behavior that is commonly attributed to certain religious and ethnic communities as different from other forms of abuse.”
Now the Southern Poverty Law Center has obtained emails that show Sirocki is enlisting support from an anti-Muslim hate group.
“Our concern is that state Rep. Heather Sirocki is interacting with a group called Act For America that has a long history of Muslim bashing,” says Heidi Beirich, the director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, which tracks hate groups around the country.
Beirich says the bill is a thinly veiled effort to demonize Muslims and Islam in general.
“Act For America basically exists to make all of us fear Muslims and think they’re undermining our culture, imposing foreign practices like female genital mutilation or have a bunch of terrorists running around our country that threaten our lives,” she says.
Act For America bills itself as “the NRA of national security” and, according to its website, trains citizens to “help protect and preserve American culture and keep this nation safe.” It’s known for passing anti-Muslim legislation.
In an email to members, the president of the group’s Maine chapter called Sirocki “our sponsor for FGM.” He also said the national group provided a speaker for Tuesday’s news conference, a victim of FGM. And he signs his emails with “Islam is evil.”
“They support the bill. They’re opposed to child abuse,” Sirocki says.
She says Act For America gave her a call and asked if members could help with the bill the way many other interest groups do. But Sirocki says that’s all she knows.
“I never attended a meeting. I really don’t know much about them except that they are a group that reached out to me to support my bill,” she says.
Democrats unveiled a similar bill this week that has the backing of several prosecutors, including Maeghan Maloney, the district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties. Maloney says a state law would provide another tool to bring charges in the event that someone engages in the practice of FGM in Maine.
“I know your question is why do you need it in state law if it’s also illegal in the federal system,” she says. “The state would be looking at prosecuting crimes in Maine whereas the federal government is generally more interested when it crosses boundaries.”
But in a written statement Attorney General Janet Mills says she’s unaware of any incidents occurring in Maine and that if there were any she says she would bring charges of aggravated assault or child abuse, both felonies which carry prison terms of up to ten years and five years in prison respectively.
More than two-dozen states have passed FGM legislation. And Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center says many of those bills have passed at the urging of Act for America.
This story was originally published Feb. 6, 2018 at 5:46 p.m. ET.